The practice of solitude suffers from some misconceptions.
An old misconception of the habit, which tempts our belief from time to time, is that solitude is primarily the domain of those who live in the desert or among cloisters and in monks’ cells.
We do have some impressive models from such traditions. There was St. Anthony of Egypt, who withdrew to the desert and lived as a hermit until he died at 105 years old. Hardly a week passed where he didn’t have some visitor coming to seek his wisdom.
Or maybe the word “solitude” conjures up a more recent spiritual practitioner, someone closer to home, like Thomas Merton, who wrote from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.
We might also conceive of solitude as a luxury available only to folks with few external commitments.
But, as with all spiritual disciplines, practicing solitude is for everybody.
I’ve been having my inner world re-arranged again this Lent by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. He knows plenty about how often misunderstood the spiritual disciplines are. So on the very first page of his book, he says, “God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.”
Solitude is for everybody.
It’s not to be confused with loneliness.
In loneliness there is a constant wish that things would be other than they are. There is a deep, unsatisfied craving–even a sad yearning, a missing of what is not there. Loneliness includes anxiety. It feels like being forgotten or passed by. Loneliness seems more often beyond our control, whereas solitude is a choice.
Solitude and loneliness are not the same.
Neither is solitude merely time alone… any more than holy Sabbath-keeping is just lack of working.
There are plenty of ways to not work and still disregard a holy Sabbath that we consecrate to God. And there are many ways to be alone but not really alone with God. We can be alone and not even really alone with ourselves. Our first impulse when solo might be to distract ourselves with some noise or input.
Solitude is not just time alone; it’s sanctified time alone. It’s dedicated and God-focused aloneness.
The Psalmist prays to God, “My times are in your hands” (31:15). Solitude is sanctified time, willingly placed in God’s hands. It is our attention, given over to God for the purposes of God, not the purposes of the self.
Many Christians through the years have suggested one reason God doesn’t “speak” to us today is that we’re too absorbed in other noise to be attuned to God’s voice in the first place.
Solitude, then, is being by yourself, but in such a way that you are clutter-free enough to hear yourself, and to be open to the voice of God.
I share here about solitude, using the same units we use to measure time: seconds, minutes, hours, days.
It is possible, yes, to put even the seconds of our lives into God’s hands. We can give the tick of the seconds hand to God in such a way that even something like a quarter of a minute can be sanctified for God’s work in us.
All of the spiritual disciplines have both internal and external components to them. When we think about the seconds of our days, a soul-searching question to ask is: What do I default to doing when I have a short break? What do I reach for when I’m waiting half a minute for someone to arrive at a meeting? Even when I get to the coffee shop and there are only two folks in front of me, where does my mind go? When my kid finally stops running around because he or she has to go potty, what am I doing with the short break–interrupted as it soon will be by a request for help?
All of those instances are enough time to pray, for example, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I don’t mean we have to be deliberate about every single second of the day. That would be exhausting. And it’s good to just zone out sometimes. But especially if you’re struggling with where to find opportunities for solitude, those otherwise lost moments–those scattered seconds–are the place to begin. We all have these already-existing spaces–however small they are–that we don’t have to create. We just have to see them and be ready to use them as mini-retreats.
Thinking in terms of seconds an unexpected place to start on solitude. But this spiritual practice in particular, I think, is one where quality of time is at least as important as quantity of time.
If we don’t know how to sanctify the seconds of our lives for our communion with God–however brief it may be–if we can’t do that, we’re likely struggle when we carve out longer periods of time to reflect and pray by ourselves.
I was a professional house painter for a year. I wanted to paint fast (and well) like my boss. He cut in the best lines (with no painter’s tape!), and quickly.
But, of course, in my first weeks painting, I was only fast. As a result, I had to learn how to use a razor blade to take excess oil-based paint off window panes.
My boss referred me to Walter, the best painter in the city who occasionally worked with us. Walter trained me. He said: start with quality first. Get it right before you get it fast. Speed will follow good technique.
I slowed down. I got better at painting clean lines. My boss noticed my decrease in speed—how long it took me to do a window or baseboard—but he was patient. By the end the of year, I was painting windows and baseboards with no painter’s tape, almost as fast as my boss.
Solitude is like this, too: start with quality of time spent alone, then build quantity from there. Work on your solitude mindset technique, so to speak, in the seconds of the day.
And if you already regularly practice solitude with much greater quantity than seconds, pay attention to the seconds hand. God is just as present there as he is in your hour-long devotional time.
Then there the minutes of our lives. They add up quickly, those minutes we need to get ready for the day, to do our hair, to take a shower, to wind down before we go to sleep. We spend minutes at a time in line at the grocery store. Minutes in the car (sometimes many minutes) stuck in traffic.
Like seconds, these minutes are already-existing moments we don’t have to create–they’re either built-in or beyond our control. And they’re a great place to practice solitude–opening ourselves up, in moments of aloneness, to God.
The other day I had to make what would be a 90-minute commute for a school meeting I was hoping would have just been an email.
Before leaving, I probably spent as much time complaining to my wife about the meeting as I would later spend stuck in traffic on the highway.
And I spent way too much psychological energy trying to figure out how I could redeem the 3 hours I knew I would be in the car. Audiobooks? Phone calls? Bass-heavy, hip hop music playlists?
To my surprise, when I got into the car to head out, I felt a fairly strong sense that I should just spend that time praying. Some of that praying ended up being confession for the non-prayer-like thoughts I had about the drivers around me. But as frustrated I was at all that time in the car, through God’s mercy, I was able to receive that solitude–such as it was–as a gift.
Our lives are made up of seconds and minutes… and also of hours. This moves us into territory where we need to carve out time and space for solitude. These hours exist–we all have the same amount of them each day. But a little more effort is required.
We’ve got to anticipate our first morning commitment and set the alarm for 15 or 30 or 45 minutes before that. Or look at what time our last commitment of the day will be and schedule time with ourselves and God at night, before we go to bed.
As we learn to practice solitude in the seconds and minutes of our days, time alone with God that is measured by the half hour and hour will become especially precious.
We heard the Gospels of Jesus–a man with relational demands on his time if ever there was one!–“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Often–on a regular basis. Even while the sick and needy were trying to track him down and keep him from solitude. He withdrew–a proactive move to seek substantial alone time with God.
Then, as the quality of our sanctified time in God’s hands increases, we’ll probably not be content with just seconds and minutes and even hours–we’ll start to consider whether we can spend periods of solitude that span half-days and full days.
Something like an overnight retreat or day trip to a local retreat center requires extra coordination, but it’s just as doable as planning a vacation.
As a Way of Life and Orientation of the Heart
As we weave in and out of seconds, minutes, hours, and days, the question we want to answer is: How we can live in an integrated way so that our heart’s orientation can be one of inward solitude and focus on God? Even with crowds and sounds and external demands around us each day, how can we devote our attention in a given moment to singular communion with God?
Solitude is a way of life and, overall, an orientation of the heart, whether we are alone or with others.
There is much that keeps us from practicing solitude. They are internal and external: external noise, internal noise, fear, an impulse of self-preservation, feelings of incompetence in the spiritual life, and guilt.
Especially the barrier of guilt can keep us from solitude. We may have a sense of shame or having fallen woefully short when it comes to practices like God-focused solitude. Both our past and present lack of success induce enough guilt to keep us from entering into God’s presence during important moments of our day.
But, friends, every day we have 86,400 new seconds to call God’s goodness to mind and pray. Each day affords us 1,440 more minutes to say to God, “My time is in your hands.” This time—this very second—is in your hands.
We don’t get to choose the use of all of these seconds and minutes and 24 hours. The sheer amount of inputs competing for our attention will always tempt us to pass off God-focused solitude as the purview of advanced spiritual masters. But if you miss the three-minute opportunity you just had to re-center on God, don’t beat yourself up. Just offer God the next little pocket of time you have–when you’re waiting for someone or in between commitments.
God’s promise to us through Isaiah is: “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”
Let us trust in God—let us trust God with our seconds, minutes, days, hours… and with focused hearts. May we fix our minds on Jesus through moments of solitude—moments both short and long. May God meet us there, and keep us in perfect peace.